The Lego Games and the Glory of Not Being Challenged

The Lego Games and the Glory of Not Being Challenged

This autumn will mark 20 years since the release of LEGO Creator: Harry Potter, the first Lego game based on a licensed property. Though it launched an era of fan favorites, it’s hardly The Last of Us—unless your idea of gripping gameplay is finding Ron’s pet rat. That’s no bad thing, though. That the Lego series has endured this long suggests demand is still ripe for enjoyable, unchallenging games. Over the past year, they’ve become nothing less than essential. Let’s consider why that might be.

Fun

As obvious as it sounds, unchallenging games are fun.

This is harder to pin down than it might first appear. In a now-infamous 2018 interview with Buzzfeed, Neil Druckmann, the creative director of The Last of Us Part II, said that when approaching the game, the team “doesn’t use the word fun.” An underreported second part of that quote, though, is that the team instead focused on being engaging.

As he recognized at the time, this distinction is minor but not insignificant. It helps us sort between games that are interested in making us uncomfortable across our moral lines, and games that are interested in putting Lego Stormtroopers in hot tubs.

Fun games might be less difficult than engaging games, but the challenge isn’t eliminated. Some struggle is still key to making any game rewarding. No one who’s tried to pilot the UFO Ride in LEGO Indiana Jones 2: The Adventure Continues would deny that Lego games can provide a challenge.

Still, offering what is ultimately an easy, uncomplicated experience has an important place in gaming. Indeed, that’s what the very first video games offered. One of the very first—1950’s Bertie the Brain—pitted the player against a 4-meter-tall computer in a game of tic-tac-toe. The technology of the time was so limited that its successors were also confined to replicating preexisting games. Chess, checkers, and Nim were popular. Later games in the late ’50s and early ’60s like Tennis for Two and Spacewar! marked progress, but only so much. Even by 1972, there was hardly the computing power to lend weighty narrative backbone to a game of Pong.

No matter: The uncomplicated appeal of having fun—albeit helped by spectacle—was enough, and it launched what is now a multibillion-dollar industry. Holding onto that tradition is a smart move.

Fan Bases

Unchallenging games also tend to foster communities with less problematic behavior. After all, it’s hard to have gatekeepers in a game that’s designed for everyone and their dad to play. The Fair Play Alliance works to encourage healthier communities of fans, and its cofounder, Kimberly Voll, notes the relationship between the nature of a game and the conduct of its players. Speaking to WIRED, she explains: 

“A game that is more competitive in nature or has mechanics that allow you to interfere intentionally with another’s enjoyment (such as taking resources or destroying their creations) will be more likely to cause friction among players.”

With less of a focus on online multiplayer, the competitive aspect of unchallenging games is dialed way back. If you can meet with other players—like in Animal Crossing: New Horizons—the stakes tend to be low, which keeps tempers cool. You’re also encouraged to increase, not interfere with, one another’s enjoyment. The director of New Horizons, Aya Kyogoku, described the game in an interview with the Verge as “the kind of game you want to enjoy with other people.”

Voll concurs. Positive collaboration can be good for a gaming community. “Game mechanics that reinforce trust and social norms that are based on mutual respect all can help,” she says.

The Lego games can be played alone, but the player is always followed by a trusty second character, ready to help out. It also makes it easier for a second player to join in. When they did so before the use of split screen, trust was the only thing standing between you and getting pulled halfway across the room.

Some bigger, more difficult games also suffer from overpromising and underdelivering, which riles fans up even more. It also rarely affects games with smaller scale and more manageable expectations. A fiasco on the scale of Fallout 76 or No Man’s Sky is yet to trouble the Stardew Valley community.

Humor

The final area where unchallenging games thrive is comedy. Meatier games can have a sense of humor, as Portal and 2018’s God of War demonstrate. However, from a writing perspective, games that take themselves less seriously are able, shockingly, to take themselves less seriously, which leads to a specific kind of entertainment. The world would be a different, darker place without Untitled Goose Game. The Ratchet and Clank games see supervillain Dr. Nefarious broadcast the soap opera antics of Lance and Janice whenever he loses his temper.

The audience for a lot of these games tends to be children, which means getting a laugh without offending the parents. The solution a lot of game developers reach for is silliness. Here is where the Lego games shine once again.

Throughout their heyday in the late ’00s, the characters in the Lego games didn’t speak, which created the need for a particularly visual type of comedy. Slapstick abounds, and what can’t be communicated through speech has to come through body language. Watching Indiana Jones and his dad squabble by pointing, glaring, and hitting each other is a particular highlight.

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The same daftness pervades even the later games, where talking did get introduced. LEGO The Lord of the Rings lifts often heavy dialog straight from the films, but it lightens the tone with evil eyebrow raises and tavern-frequenting pigs.

There’s also something incredibly funny about serious moments from some of the best respected films of all time being redone in Lego. Jonathan Smith, strategic director at TT Games, tells WIRED that part of the Lego games’ success lies in reimagining classic characters and stories as something more “charming and playful.” Everyone knows the plot twist in The Empire Strikes Back, for example, in which Darth Vader reveals himself as Luke Skywalker’s father in James Earl Jones’s iconic basso profundo. In LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga, though, the characters still aren’t talking. Without James Earl Jones, Darth Vader has to make do by grunting at a photograph of Anakin and Padmé.

Annus Horribilis

The appeal of not being challenged became even clearer last March. New Horizons was released just days after the UK and US went into lockdown, and it became an instant hit. Part of why it was lauded was its ability to provide an escape, which is to say almost no challenge.

Andy Phelps, director of American University’s Game Center, tells WIRED, “I think in the midst of the lockdown people felt challenged enough or even ‘challenged-out.’”

“We needed spaces that purposefully provided the antithesis of the constant challenge of pandemic life, spaces that allowed us to accomplish something but that were low risk, easy engagement. Animal Crossing fit that perfectly.”

Before the pandemic, it was easy to feel ‘challenged-out’ by the smaller things. Just as now, titles like the Lego games weren’t likely to increase players’ stress levels.

Some games released during the pandemic have also managed to do interesting, more out-there things without being challenging. Qomp is an adventure game released in February in which you play as the ball in Pong, and have to escape. That’s it. Weighty narrative backbone may still have to wait. It typically lasts one to three hours, and its wonderfully deadpan Steam page explains that “beating the game unlocks challenges,” and that “beating the challenges unlocks nothing.”

If I Could Vent About One More Thing …

There is, of course, another notable success story for uncomplicated games in the past year.

Among Us is still everywhere. Despite its simple premise, it has secured a vicelike grip on the online community’s collective consciousness. People are seeing crewmates in logos, on bins, and—funnily enough—in Lego pieces. The game is in people’s heads, and many desperately want it out. The significance of unchallenging games has, for better or worse, not been so apparent since the era of arcade games.

Odd-looking bins notwithstanding, this resurgence should be welcome. The joy of a simple rush is obvious, and it’s more than just the foundation on which later, more sophisticated games get built. Though it’s encouraging to see gaming taken seriously, it can be off-putting when fun gets squeezed out the equation.

Andy Phelps opined, “Just like we sometimes want a deep, thought provoking film, we also sometimes want something light and mindless and that we can engage in easily and just relax. Why wouldn’t the same be true of games?”

Even now, there are fans of LEGO Creator: Harry Potter who reminisce together in the comments of play-through videos. If the last two decades—and the last 12 months in particular—have shown us anything, it’s that fun can be enough without being challenged.


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